Probate Horror Stories
Probate is the legal process that occurs after a person has passed away and involves proving that the deceased’s will is valid. If there is no valid will (a situation known as intestacy), the deceased’s estate is distributed by the state, and the probate court names an executor. This can lead to problems for the family members of the deceased.
Famous probate horror stories of what can happen without proper estate planning are probably more common than most of the general public would expect:
- The great guitarist Jimi Hendrix died without a will. Under Washington State intestacy law, his father, with whom he hardly was acquainted, got everything while his brother Leon, with whom he was close, received nothing. Hendrix’s intellectual property assets and musical legacy spawned litigation for more than 30 years after his death in 1970.
- Princess Diana of the British Royal Family left a will nominating her sister and her mother as executors. She also left a “letter of wishes” asking her executors to distribute her assets among her two sons and 17 godchildren. Details of the distribution she left to their discretion. The godchildren received only items from a Christie’s catalog, mostly ornaments, of very little monetary value no doubt far less than anticipated.
- Actor Heath Ledger drafted a will three years before he died with no provision for either his girlfriend Michelle Williams or their daughter Matilda Rose. The outdated will left his entire estate to his parents and sister, causing family clashes and fights reported in the press.
- Ted Williams of professional baseball’s Hall of Fame left a will directing cremation of his physical remains, but two of his children produced a proof that he wanted cryogenic preservation instead. So they put him in a deep freeze after he died. Another child sued to unfreeze his body and cremate it. This unnecessary litigation was a result of his failure, like Ledger’s, to do a simple update.
Probate is the process by which courts distribute the assets of decedent estates to beneficiaries designated by wills or to heirs of those who die intestate. The best estate planning avoids probate altogether but transfers estate assets to beneficiaries directly without delay.
Some amateur estate planners try to save money by drafting documents themselves using general forms rather than pay the pros legal fees for help. This method produces results that hit and miss. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it doesn’t, but when it fails unclear and defective drafts can lead to unfortunately costly litigation
Another problem frequent with self-help efforts is the need for witnesses, two competent adults who state under penalty of perjury that they observed the testator sign the will. * Some such errors can be fixed if the witnesses are available, but if they die or can’t be located or won’t cooperate, the will is beyond repair.
To amend, update, or change a will by codicil, as should have been done for in the Ledger and Williams probate horror stories, the better practice is simply to destroy the old will and draft a replacement. A single, complete document rather than two or more seems to be better for purposes of clarity and efficiency.
Avoid unnecessary mistakes followed by probate horrors. Consult a professional at Accolade Law for help. Call (702) 337-3000 today to arrange a consultation.